The ins and outs of my settling in Hong Kong

A couple months of life in Hong Kong have passed. Now that you know how my move and quarantine went it’s time I revealed more about the actual process of settling in. Coming from Malaysia to Hong Kong feels like leaving behind a heavy, tired, and lazy bear, who just wants to eat honey and watch TV, and moving towards an incessantly roaring, restless, and agitated tiger. Basically, from a suffocating stillness to an overwhelming pulse. Neither of the countries is for everyone and once my current notions as well as first impressions of Hong Kong get confirmed I will write a comparison post but for now I’ll just say again how grateful I am for the timing of my move couldn’t have been better. Quite honestly if you want some life and safety combined, Hong Kong with its daily 0 cases is probably the only place to be right now. My guardian angels are simply amazing!

Quarantine still looming – they’re after me!

One would think that once you leave the quarantine and all its weird confinement stories behind, it’s done. Over, Finito, Ende. But no. Not in Hong Kong as apparently the stress needs prolonging here. About two weeks into my free life I received a phone call from the Hong Kong Department of Health. Leaving aside the fact that they called me on my Czech number and therefore the fruitful conversation couldn’t last long due to the excessive charges, the information shared was quite brutal too. It was an awakening comparable to the one in my dirty bathtub story. Despite the phone call’s abrupt ending, the officer still managed to inform me that I hadn’t completed the post-quarantine Covid-19 testing requirements and might be prosecuted.

Poster on a glass informing citizens of rules and instructions related to Covid-19
Together we fight the virus!

‘How lovely!’ I thought. When the phone went deaf I was both angry – because the dude wasted my normally yearly sim card balance in under 3 minutes – and completely shocked. ‘Post-quarantine testing? You could be prosecuted!’ resonated in my head. It took me a while to understand what that was supposed to mean. Staring out of the window, gripping my phone I clearly felt how my quarantine troubles weren’t quite over yet. Once I fully grasped the situation, panic took hold of me as I remembered another part of the thick quarantine brochure, which I successfully tore once I left the quarantine hotel, which said that along with prosecution miscreants may pay the penalty of 25,000HKD.

A cat looking with anticipation into the street from behind a corner of a shop
Are they here yet?

Picturing myself handcuffed and suddenly poor successfully woke me up from the initial shock. Taking the matter firmly in my hands, I immediately rang the Department of Health. The beautiful thing about Hong Kong is that unlike in Malaysia, where you are pretty much screwed if you have a problem and a mere thought of dealing with a public office makes you dizzy, Hongkongers are actually helpful. The reason why I initially panicked so much was the red tape I could foresee with such a problem. You can therefore imagine the relief when I was told exactly how to proceed and had the test taken the next day. While I am not quite sure what my expat record looks like now, I’m seriously hoping I have successfully dodged the prosecution…

A police car leaving away from me on a street
Goodbye for now…

Accommodation

Everyone who’s ever lived in Hong Kong will tell you what a pain in the ass looking for accommodation is. Although there doesn’t seem to be a shortage, the standards are really weirdly set. Decent means ultra expensive and you are better off lowering your expectations drastically if your budget is limited. In fact, the problem is multi-layered, but below is a brief breakdown.

A block of houses in Hong Kong shot from balcony
Where will I land?

Unreasonable rents and size

Well, this is the worst part of the problem. Rents are incredibly high and the price doesn’t match the quality. When you also consider that your flat will probably be the tiniest place you’ll have ever lived in, one must indeed question the motivation of those, including myself, who have moved to Hong Kong or intend to do so. My verdict is that unless you have an adequate salary, or are willing to do flat share, you should seriously think about it. Prices for a 200sqft studio start around 12,000HKD and you’ll be lucky if you find anything within this budget and your requirements. Speaking of which…

A lane in-between houses with white laundry hanging
Looking for my own slice of space.

Requirements

My previous flat, a studio, nicely lit and clean, featuring bed, table, chairs and a warm light
In KL cosy and cheap, in 852 inaccessible luxury

Coming from Malaysia where a fully-furnished 500sqft studio with a balcony in the city centre cost me around 2000MYR (450dollars) pre-pandemic (and a couple hundred less due to Covid-19), the Hong Kong real estate market seems rather depressing. A flat of such size is considered luxury and you can expect a ten to twelvefold increase. Yes, you read that right – tenfold. Therefore, as a single person you must first accept the fact that you’ll live in a cage and pay significantly more than in your previous cosy palace, depending on location. Luxuries such as lift, balcony, furnishing, Wi-Fi, will be also more or less hit and miss and you may need to prioritise. Can I walk 30 stairs several times a day to pay less? Do I really need TV? Is sofa absolutely necessary? Could I potentially survive hard-core and punk to save money? Oh yeah, it won’t be easy. While I don’t regret my decision as I knew very well what I was going to be dealing with, it’s this part of life that makes Hong Kong a rather challenging place to live.

Clothes hanging to dry in a rundown area of Hong Kong
Getting mentally ready…

Agents

As if the outrageous size and prices weren’t enough, agents won’t exactly make your life easier. Quite the opposite. One reason being their incredibly annoying but widely practised modus operandi. Regardless of your budget – although the lower it is, the worse it gets – you will be subjected to some true monkey business. First off, agents will show you so shitty places that you will often want to puke. The funniest thing of all is that the rent will be high too. Usually the first viewing will be the worst as you will set your expectations really high – the photos look much better than the reality of course – and you’ll just stare at the dump completely puzzled wondering what is going on. The first place I saw looked great in the photos but when I saw it live my jaw dropped. A dirty, smelly, damp den where you wouldn’t even put up a dog. When I asked when the last tenant left they would be bold enough to claim with a poker face that it’d been vacant for a mere two weeks.

A photo of a real estate agency shop from outside
Don’t look closer, all inaccessible.

When one of the agents, during say fifth or sixth flat, crowned it all by stepping into the shower to show me how to use it properly, I decided I had had enough. He wanted to drag me to another surely rundown place but I just ran away. “Sorry, I can’t do this,” I strictly refused his services and went for a beer. The agent was startled but I guess fair is fair. The only reason why I could afford to be so bold and exotically unconventional though was that I had already found a place. If I hadn’t been so lucky I would have probably seen a few more dozens of dirty, stinky, expensive dumps along with a host of unprofessional agents and would surely be more depressed. Luckily I found my little nest through Facebook already in quarantine (those guardian angels again) and didn’t need to use an agent, but renting directly through a landlord comes with its challenges too.

A man sitting and chilling on a roof of a house in Hong Kong
Take it easy….

Landlords

While Hongkongers respect law, my understanding has been that most landlords will try to rip you off as much as possible. Mine was incredibly eager to do so. Unfortunately as a gwei-lo (a Cantonese term for a white person) you are seen as a bank. In Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand,  Vietnam or Malaysia one would consider this normal, but in Hong Kong it hurts a bit more since they are supposed to be more westernised, or so you thought. On top of that if you are a female and new to Hong Kong you will be considered not only rich but also gullible and stupid. At least that’s the message my landlord has sent me on several occasions. Therefore, the ultimate advice is – do not trust anyone. As cliché as this sounds, you must brace yourself. Double and triple check everything. Ask a local person or a long-term expat, run everything by them. And when I say everything I mean everything. The usual charges for water, electricity, Wi-Fi arrangement, responsibility for repairs, management and government fees. Everything. Ideally most of it would also need to be laid out in the contract or confirmed elsewhere in writing.

A blurred copy of a tenancy agreement in Hong Kong
In writing is your best friend.

Imagine that when my landlord sent me the soft copy of our contract, he changed the amount we initially agreed on and made it significantly higher – of course! When I saw this I immediately knew what had happened so I called him but it’s better not to admit that you are aware. Once asked what the change of the rental price meant my landlord nonchalantly dismissed it as a ‘little mistake’. As a decent person you are wondering – ‘Is this really necessary? I mean what are the odds of someone signing a contract without reading it?’ But in Hong Kong this is normal. It’s not about decency or common sense. It’s about testing the waters and looking for opportunities to earn more. I’ve seen this gwei-lo approach literally everywhere, so not only landlords are to blame. Some business people have similarly unscrupulous methods so you’d better develop a thick skin.

A person pushing a cart full of cardboard in front of her into a hilly street in Central, Hong Kong
It’s a struggle

Upon signing the contract my landlord told me that I seemed too careful and I should trust people – essentially meaning him – more. This logically had an adverse effect on me. First of all, low-level psychology tricks really piss me off and secondly, it’s beyond clear that an honest person would never make such a statement. He later crowned it when he said I would need to bear all the contract stamping costs, assuming I wouldn’t have read or found out that in Hong Kong this cost is typically shared by both – landlord and tenant. By that time I’d already made a conclusion that I’d need to be super vigilant and that my easy-going renting in Malaysia was a thing of the past. Truth is, however, that I really like my flat and so I’ll treat this as a crash course into the Hong Kong’s ‘crookery’. All things considered, my verdict is that while agents are often useless and they’ll tell you just about anything to make you sign, there’s more transparency in the process as opposed to renting with a direct landlord. However, the latter saves you a lot of money so as long as you are well-informed and aware, it should be fine.

Top tip – For great offers with direct landlord, look at Facebook – marketplace and Hong Kong renting groups.

A window of an antique shop featuring porcelain statues of traditionally dressed Chinese men with long beards
Who’s laughing here?

Hotels and Hostels

If everything fails though and you struggle to find a reasonable deal, hotels can save the day. Nowadays, due to the lack of tourism, hotels offer exclusive packages that will not break the bank. I’ve seen deals for 10,000HKD per month which really is great! Truth be told, however, it’s not as comfy as your own flat. Often the storage space is severely limited, you can’t cook and rooms tend to be even smaller than flats. I mean, it’s a hotel room. It’s as good as it gets. But then again, your package may include pool, gym and other perks, so it could really be a solution for some.

A busy street with red taxis on it and a signboard of a hotel in sunlight
Hotel anyone?

Understanding the surroundings

Street of Hong Kong with the iconic ding ding tram with a ray of sun coming through buildings
Ding dings are your ultimate friends.

Compact but huge

Hong Kong is overwhelming. Mostly in a good way. But when you get out of the quarantine, it can be slightly unpleasant, especially since the first thing you’ll need to do is see a lot of ugly flats in various neighbourhoods. I personally didn’t enjoy the first month at all and felt quite agitated. But once you find a flat, things will settle and you’ll be able to enjoy exploring the abundance of everything. Finding familiar things will feel like a little victory and once you start understanding your neighbourhood, you’ll feel more and more excited about the move.

My personal tip – give it time, take notes and photos of everything and understand settling in Hong Kong as a project.

Crowds

When people tell you Hong Kong is crowded, and if you haven’t been exposed to seriously crowded places before, you’ll have no idea what that actually means. That is until you see it for yourself. Kuala Lumpur – with its lack of pulse, culture, fun, buzz and anything that makes a city great – is a tiny suburban village compared to Hong Kong. What’s more, a lot of Malaysians fear walking as Satan fears garlic, except for strolls in shopping malls, therefore all you’ll see if you venture out will be empty streets, mostly void of pedestrians. Only vehicles will be dominating the roads.

Crowds walking over a pedestrian crossing
This is normal.

Therefore, the first encounter with Hong Kong will feel like a trip to another planet indeed. People are everywhere and moving constantly. Peak hours are enormously busy and there’s incessant action. On the one hand, it’s great, on the other one it can get frustrating, especially if you are not used to it. It really does make a difference when for 6 years you had streets to yourself and then you need to be constantly dodging people wherever you walk. Not that I mind but I must admit it takes some getting used to. At this point I am already aware of places or activities to avoid at specific times because I wouldn’t cope. And Saturdays and Sundays, my friends? Forget it. That’s a real crowd hard-core experience. Luckily, I spend these days at work.

 

Busy street full of swarms of people
But it somehow works.

Weather

I arrived in summer. Malaysia is always hot and humid. I got used it and liked the weather there. After all, it was once my dream to live in a country with a never-ending summer, so not only did I get used to it. I loved it. Hong Kong, on the other hand, being a subtropical climate, offers a wider range of weathers and temperatures and I must admit after six years of constant sweating I am excited to be trying something new in that department. I admit I am a bit concerned about winter as so far it looks rather harsh to me as it creeps upon us and when there’s no heating in buildings, but let’s see. So far, however, the most unique experience has been typhoon.

Typhoons

Oftentimes you will hear about those in the news. But experiencing it is just awesome. I mean nothing beats the feeling when you wake up on a Saturday morning to a message announcing cancellation of classes due to typhoon. Devastating, right? Suddenly the T8 signal raised by the Hong Kong observatory becomes your best friend. Watching and listening to nonstop rain beating on the windows from the comfort of your tiny apartment is incredibly romantic. Can’t even fathom what would happen if I had a boyfriend…

View outside from behind the window of my flat with shades open
Staying indoors.

Services

While moving to Hong Kong has been mostly exciting there are things which can momentarily send all the fun down the toilet. One of them is finding the same quality of beauty services. While I don’t pamper myself too much, sometimes you simply need to. Your body is your temple as they say.

Efficient Hong Kong?

Most of us probably have this image of Hong Kong being incredibly efficient and a place running like clockwork where everybody knows what to do. Partially this is true and that’s why many fall in love with it. It just gives you this feeling that anything is possible. That is until you visit massage parlours or hair salons and find out how totally not efficient certain things can be. It’s still Asia after all and Asian way of thinking is in many aspects miles away from the Western one.

Worst Massage

Upon leaving the quarantine I needed some muscle relaxation urgently. Following good reviews online I made a beeline to a parlour near my hotel. End result? I think I got something that could easily be classified as the worst massage of my life. So not only was it painful AF – no wonders, I mean when you use knuckles and elbows on a tired body – but it knocked me out for two days. I came there as a beaten dog and got even more beating. I ended up having bruises all over my body, my head was spinning and I felt dizzy and for two days. I actually couldn’t properly get up from bed. Rejuvenation turned completely wrong. I thanked the masseuse by writing a really nice review.

Photo of a signboard outside a massage shop with a man walking past and reflected in the window of the building
Wanna massage?

Goodbye my hair

As if the massage wasn’t a good enough lesson, for some inexplicable reason I repeated the same with a hairdresser. Tired body after a massage can and will quickly recover. But a messed up haircut? You know the answer, don’t you?  Yet again my exploring and independent spirits dragged me into a hair salon near my place. And also here reviews were great. I mean what could possibly go wrong with a simple trim right? Well, in Hong Kong anything could go wrong. When I was sat there and the hairdresser didn’t speak English I knew I should leave instantly. A nudge in my stomach had me get up from the chair. I apologised and said I didn’t feel comfortable. But the stupid translator changed my mind, assuring me the hairdresser was a top-notch hairstylist who ‘just’ needed to be told what I wanted. Long story short and as expected the top-notch dude turned out to be a brain dead idiot who ‘just’ didn’t give a shit about what I wanted and ‘just’ like that cut 8 inches of my hair….I won’t describe the shock and awe that struck me when this happened. The dumbass finished me off by saying I would get a discount. I mean you really need to be terminally stupid if you thought that I’d pay for this hair trauma.

Photo of myself from behind to show how short my under hair has been cut
It stills hurts…But I am patient.

Since I stopped the disaster right at the beginning of it, I didn’t leave the salon completely hairless. But still, as you can see from the photo, it’ll probably take more than a year to have a normal hair cut again. Well, what can you do? Shit happens I guess. If it’s not a question of life and death, it’s probably just fine. Welcome every-day-pony-tail! The only benefit I could find on this experience, aside from the fact that it made a couple people laugh, is that I could release my anger big time and leave without paying. Looking on the bright side of things, I must admit that getting a haircut for free in Hong Kong is quite an extraordinary achievement.

Budgeting

Another thing locals and expats alike will tell you is how outrageously expensive Hong Kong is. Another pain to deal with. When I visited Hong Kong a couple years back I didn’t feel it but again, living and visiting are incomparable. In a way at the beginning my budgeting was much more effective. I was stressed, I had no idea where all the good things were and had so much stuff to deal we with that any exploring or shopping were the last thing on my mind. So this logically meant that despite the necessary initial expenses, I saved a lot more than today. Three months into my life in Hong Kong, however, and my spending is through the roof. The fact that I want to explore the place so badly and become an expert one could rely on with giving advice also means that my wallet keeps bleeding. While in Malaysia I didn’t need to make an extra effort to save a considerable amount of my monthly salary, here I really struggle. But to be fair, I only started properly saving in Malaysia in the last two or three years. At the beginning it wasn’t that great either. So I’ll blame the novelty.. Oh boy, is this taking its toll on my banking statements.

A street with taxis and a tram behind
Taxi? No no…too expensive.

Nevertheless, I’m hoping even this will settle too. It seems that winter will help me suppress my insatiable appetite for beer and if I cook every now and then…. Fingers crossed.

Language

I used to call myself a successful polyglot. But after coming into close contact with Cantonese I am not so sure anymore. From the initial excitement and buying books to help me learn, I’m currently going through a serious denial and my learning is terribly stagnating. First of all, during my first attempts to speak with locals nobody understood me, except for the guard in our building, who I try to ‘converse’ with very slowly. And secondly, it’s just really hard to remember stuff in a tonal language. With the overwhelmedness that living in Hong Kong entails, I must admit that unless you have the time and money to attend courses, it’s seriously one of the most difficult things to grasp. But let’s see. I’m not throwing in the towel yet.

 

A textbook of Canotnese laid on bed along with a notebook, sun coming through the window
Still in chapter 3…hou hou

Here you go friends. Hope you enjoyed this post and don’t forget to drop me a line if you have any questions. Stay safe!

A cat sleeping on a handwoven basket
Take a rest too, dear friends.

6 thoughts on “The ins and outs of my settling in Hong Kong

  1. Dearest Sonia,

    as there was not much l o v e ♥♥♥ in the Hair I am wishing you a QUICK recovery and sending LOTS of love your way. Stay safe and YES, taking it even MORE easy as usual might release some stress and you won’t need a masseuse too soon again.

    Keeping my fingers crossed for you in the roaring tiger aka HK

    Kim :*

    1. Dear Kim, you have totally made my day with this wonderful comment. I am so grateful for your words. It keeps me motivated. Thank you. I hope you are safe and sound. 🍀💙

    2. Very interesting read! Never having been to HK I didn’t have too much of an idea, except from what a friend who went on exchange there told me. She did also tell me about the outrageous cost of accommodation there. Having to constantly watch your back with the landlord etc sounds stressful but seems like you know what you’re doing!

      Your poor hair and back. At least the hair will grow back but ugh!

      Anyway thanks for the laughs and insights. I look forward to reading more about your new HK life. Hopefully things will continue to get better and better for you!

      Eliz

      1. Hi Eliz,

        Thanks so much for your awesome comment. Was really glad to open the blog and see your name. I’m super excited to hear that you found my post entertaining 🙂

        I suppose you might have also giggled at the passage with the massage – wanna massage? – remember?

        Thanks a million again for stopping by. Your feedback means the world to me:)

  2. Thank you so much for sharing another of your interesting life experiences! I’m so sorry about your hair (luckily they will grow, but it will take a bit of time…). We have been to both, KL and HK. Whilst we liked HK, I just can’t get over the pollution in HK and China…the worst experience was in the Ozone bar, being supposedly the highest bar in the world, we wanted to try it. The view was disappointing, the funny thing was when I was asking the waiter to open the blinds and he reassured me that they are not the blinds but the pollution so we enjoyed the view better from the entrance than from the top… Wishing you all the best in HK! @journeyofsmiley

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